Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

 
YKA couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, "Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There's a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?"

I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that's a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by "God" and what you mean by "control." 

And she said, "But doesn't Jewish tradition say that's exactly how it works?" Well: yes -- and no. "Jewish tradition" says a lot of things that don't necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef  prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It's a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water..." That's a theology that can be hard to swallow.

Now, I'm a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don't want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

"But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree."

Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as "repentance." I prefer "return." It comes from the root meaning "to turn," and that's the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, we turn ourselves around. We look at who we've been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.

Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we're doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l'hitpallel means "to discern oneself." That's what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world. 

And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means "charity." But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.

Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition's tools for fixing what's broken in our world.

Continue reading "Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »


Days of closeness, days when God feels far away

Crack-in-concrete-wallThe Jewish calendar is filled with moadim. Usually that word is translated as "festivals," though it literally means "appointed times." Each year we have moadim of closeness to God, and also moadim of distance from God. The Days of Awe and Sukkot are moadei shel keruv, appointed-times of closeness with God. The Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av are moadei shel richuk, appointed-times of distance from God.

That teaching comes from R' Shlomo Wolbe, whose work Alei Shur I studied recently with R' Jeff Fox as part of a week of "Rabbi (and Hazzan) Recharge" organized by The Jewish Studio. With R' Jeff we also studied a text from R' Shmuel Eidels (a.k.a. the Maharsha) that speaks of the Three Weeks as a period of growth toward fruition. Just as it takes 21 days for an almond tree to blossom, says the Maharsha, so we can understand the 21 days between 17 Tammuz and Tisha b'Av as a period of preparing for flowering-forth.

I don't usually think of Tisha b'Av -- that date of destruction and shattering -- as a time of fruition or flowering. But the Alei Shur reminds us that it is natural (maybe even good?) for our relationships with the Holy One of Blessing to have an ebb and a flow, to have times of intimacy and times of distance. (Indeed: distance is often what awakens in our hearts our yearning to reconnect.) And from the Maharsha we learn that even destruction can have a silver lining, and can spark the blossoming of something new.

Today is the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of the period known as The Three Weeks (also called Bein Ha-Meitzarim, "In the Narrow Places.") Today is the anniversary of the ancient breach of Jerusalem's city walls, and the anniversary of the date when Moshe broke the first set of tablets in anger and sorrow at the people's misdeeds. In three weeks, on Tisha b'Av, we'll re-experience the destruction of the Temples, our people's quintessential experience of shattering and distance from our Source.

In the Alei Shur's language, these weeks are a moed of distance. They're balanced by the three weeks from Rosh Hashanah to Shemini Atzeret, a moed of closeness and drawing-near. Our calendar gives us three bitter weeks, and three sweet ones... and we need to experience them both. The soul gets "out of whack" otherwise. It's not healthy to marinate only in sorrow all year long, or to allow ourselves only to feel joy all year long. Both of those extremes are spiritually damaging. We need the both / and. 

What does it mean to say that this is an appointed-time of distance from God? For me, it's an opportunity to notice where and when and how I already feel that distance. Maybe my sorrows are causing me to feel distant from God: maybe I'm grieving so hard I can't find God. Or maybe my joys are serving that function this year, if I let myself fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing -- maybe I'm over-focusing on the positive so I don't have to face what's difficult in my life. Either way, distance from God ensues.

The Alei Shur teaches that distance from God isn't, in and of itself, the worst thing. (Far worse is when we have fallen so out of alignment that we no longer even notice the distance.) He sees the distance as part of a natural cycle of being close and being far away -- a ratzo v'shov, as it were. When I notice that I'm distant from a beloved, and let my heart feel the ache of that distance, the ache impels me to reach out and be close to my loved one again. As with a human beloved, so with the divine Beloved.

Where do you feel distant: from your beloveds, from the Beloved, from your traditions, from your Source? What are the patterns and habits that contribute to that distance? What are the excuses you make to yourself for why it's okay to be disconnected, and what feels "at stake" when you imagine reconnecting -- what are you afraid of when you imagine letting yourself reconnect?

Today we remember the first breach in Jerusalem's ancient city walls. Where is your heart cracked-open? In what realms do you feel broken-hearted? How do you deal with the vulnerability of being fragile and breakable? What seeds might be planted in your broken places, that over these three weeks could be silently preparing themselves (preparing you) to flower into something new?

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


Light in the darkness

NertamidAt the end of Shabbat, my son and I walked into the sanctuary of one of the synagogues in the bigger town south of here for a county-wide havdalah.

He immediately noticed the ner tamid -- the eternal light -- hanging on its chain in front of the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept. 

(He compared it to something in an iPad game, because he is an ordinary seven-year-old boy, and animation is one of his frames of reference. This ner tamid is made of white glass shot through with lines of red, which made him think of digital fire. I couldn't find a picture of that particular ner tamid, so I'm illustrating this post with a different one. They come in many styles, and all are beautiful.)

"We have one of those at our synagogue too," I told him. "But ours is made of colored stained glass. Remember?"

"Oh yeah," he said. "I know what you're talking about."

"Every synagogue has one," I said. "It's supposed to always be on, all the time." And then I thought to ask him, "Why do you think that is?"

I don't know what I thought he would say. I was primed to give him a standard answer for why the ner tamid is there -- that it represents God's loving presence which is always with us. (To an adult, I might have also added that it represents the ancestral fire that Torah teaches was to be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.)

I should have known that he would have an answer of his own.

"To light our way through the darkness of our fears," he said confidently.

Now, maybe I primed him for that, the previous morning. We'd talked about people's hopes and fears upon the inauguration of a new President, and how he might hear something about those at the havdalah event on Saturday night.

But even if my mention of hopes and fears planted a seed for him, he made the leap from there to the ner tamid all on his own. He saw intuitively how our fears can feel like darkness, and how divine presence can be a beacon. It was obvious to him that the purpose of the ner tamid is to help us find our way when life feels dark.

"You just taught me something," I said to him. "Thank you."

"I did?" He seemed excited at the prospect. "Will you write it down?"

My child knows me well. "I will," I promised him.

And now I have.


New in The Wisdom Daily: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters.

31967190051_a22ff3cf91_z...On my scraps of paper, I jotted down phrases like “the sorrow of my divorce” and “tendency to diminish my own needs” and “feeling silenced.” I felt both humbled and hopeful: humbled by the recognition that there’s much I need to shed, and hopeful at the prospect of truly letting those things go.

When we were done writing, we went around the table and took turns reading each scrap of paper aloud and then holding it in the fire until it began to burn. We dropped the flaming bits of paper into the dish that held the tealight. We burned old griefs and bad habits.

When we were done, one of my friends suggested a variation. We each wrote blessings for each of the others,  read those aloud, and lit them on fire too — not because we wanted the blessings to burn up, but because the act of setting them aflame felt like a way of offering the intentions up to God.

As we finished reading and burning our hopes and blessings for each other, we heard a loud crack. We promptly blew out the flame, but it was too late — the ceramic dish holding the tealight had broken in two....

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters

 

 


A crack in everything

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I was walking with my son at MASS MoCA on a recent rainy day. He was collecting Pokémon on my phone, and I was letting my mind wander with our footsteps. The asphalt of the pavement beneath my feet was cracked in several places. As in many places, the cracks had been filled in and repaired.

But then I noticed that these repaired cracks weren't quite like the ones I see everywhere else. They gleamed. They were golden. And then I noticed the small plate on the side of building 11 indicating that this is an art piece by Rachel Sussman, part of an exhibition called The Space Between. Here's how the artist herself describes the piece:

Fracture is investigated by Rachel Sussman, who restores cracks in pavement in the museum parking lot by adapting the Japanese art of kintsukuroi. On the ground in the interior courtyard behind the museum’s main building, resin and gold powder fill the cracks on the ground caused by cars and weather. The tiny streams of gold create fractal patterns recalling aerial topographical photographs. The philosophy of kintsukuroi treats cracks as fundamental parts of an object, noting that value lies in accepting change and underscoring the aesthetic qualities of imperfection and use rather than disguising flaws.

I learned the name of the art as kintsugi, and I've written about it before (see From trauma to healing, a d'var Torah I shared for Shemini a couple of years ago.) I learned about it from a blog reader, who told me about it after I posted the poem Find in April 0f 2015. The art, as I understand it, inheres in repairing broken things with gold so that their brokenness becomes a focal point and a locus of beauty, rather than being a cause for shame. 

We all have broken places. Our bodies break -- I became aware of that in a new way when I had my strokes. And even absent something dramatic like a stroke, our bodies all have flaws, and the older we get, the less our bodies match the supposed ideals of youthful slimness that our current culture so prizes. Our hearts break -- we experience love lost or unrequited, seasons of loneliness and invisibility, the personal griefs that we all come to carry. Our minds break -- over time they lose their elasticity, and remembering things becomes more difficult. And our spirits break -- the world is unfair, children fall ill and do not recover, world news can be horrifying and disheartening. We are all broken, sometimes.

It can be tempting to try to hide the brokenness. To put a bandaid on it, or cover it over with makeup, or put on the proverbial happy face and pretend it away. And there are times when pretending at gratitude can help us actually get there. But there are also times when pretending away our brokenness and our grief is a form of spiritual bypass. I think that often authentic spiritual life demands something different: that we feel what we feel, and that we call it what it is, honestly and openly. Sometimes we feel broken. (Sometimes we are broken.) And that's okay. Granted, it doesn't feel good. Nobody wants to be broken. But pretending that we are otherwise doesn't actually change anything. The art of kintsugi offers a different path: paint our broken places gold.

Paint our broken places gold, and embrace them. Recognize that the more life we have lived, the more scars we are likely to have -- visible or invisible -- and that our scars are not a flaw in us, but an intrinsic part of what makes us human. Beyond that: our broken places can paradoxically be a source of our wholeness. The sages of the Talmud taught that if an earthen vessel becomes tamei ("impure," charged-up with spiritual energy in a dangerous way) the way to make it tahor (pure) is to break it and glue it back together. Torah teaches that we are beings of the earth: we too can become pure and whole not despite our brokenness, but in and through it. Or as the Leonard Cohen z"l wrote, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

I'm grateful to Rachel Sussman for adding a little bit of beauty and sparkle to the rain-drenched pavement outside of MASS MoCA, and for reminding me to find the beauty in my own broken places.

 


Reflections on the anniversary of becoming a mom

4166882213_c88ecdf42d_zUntil I became a parent, I didn't think much about how every person's birthday can (or at least might) also mark a day of transition for the woman who brought that person into the world. I didn't think about how my birthday is a kind of anniversary for my mother. Year after year, my birthday must be for her a reminder of the day in late March when I decided I was ready to enter the world some ten weeks ahead of schedule.

Each year on my son's birthday I remember what it was like to drive to the hospital on the day after Thanksgiving. I remember how it felt to be attached to the pitocin drip that told my body it was time to begin labor, and to move through labor (with expert assistance from nursing staff, doula, and obstetrician). I remember closing my eyes and singing we are opening up in sweet surrender silently to myself when it was time to push.

I remember holding an impossibly tiny newborn on my chest, snugged in a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer. I remember the clarity of mind that accompanied that moment -- the realization that my life had changed in ways I knew I couldn't yet imagine. I remember eating pizza, that night -- we bought several, after he was born, and distributed them giddily to the nursing staff on duty -- and how good it tasted after the work of labor. I remember thinking okay, now what?

I didn't know then that the valley of the shadow of postpartum depression awaited me. I didn't know then that I would write one poem a week during my son's first year of life -- the poems that now make up Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013). I re-read that collection now and feel a strange combination of recognition and unfamiliarity. Life with a seven year old bears almost no resemblance to what I chronicled then. But I am endlessly grateful for the adventure of parenthood. I'm endlessly grateful for the soul that is in my keeping, this beautiful and thoughtful and goofy and funny human being who I am privileged to parent.

IMG_3754Becoming a parent has changed my relationship with God. I have been blessed to learn deep compassion and empathy in other ways too, not only through the vehicle of parenthood. There are others beyond my son to whom I extend my heart and my care. But I feel a unique responsibility for and to my son, because I grew him from component cells. Because I brought him into this world.

I take the love and compassion and anticipatory grief I feel for my child (who is beautiful, and perfect, and deserving of care, and who I know will experience losses over his life, as we all do) and I magnify it by the number of souls who have ever lived and will ever live, and I glimpse of what God must feel. Ha-rachaman: the Merciful One, the Enwombed One, the One in Whose Compassionate Womb all of creation is nurtured!

And the pride and joy and satisfaction I find in my child (who is kind and thoughtful and surprising) magnified by the number of souls who have ever lived and will ever live... Contemplating that, I have renewed empathy for the cosmic Parent Who weeps with us when we are hurt, and rejoices with us when we are glad, and wants us to grow into all that we can become, as I want my child to grow into everything that he can become. 

Today, as I wish my son a happy seventh birthday, I wish myself a happy seventh anniversary of motherhood. May I live up to the challenge of rearing him to be simultaneously strong and gentle, thoughtful and empathetic, creative and rooted: a citizen of the wide world who knows where he comes from, whose deep roots enable him to spread his wings as he becomes whoever he yearns to be.

 


Building the world we want to see

Hope

Hope, said Frances Moore Lappé, “is a stance, not an assessment.” But applied hope is not mere glandular optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Applied hope requires fearlessness.

That's from a commencement speech called "Applied Hope," by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. I'm struck by his assertion that the person who is living in hope is working hard toward creating a better future. It's easy to imagine that hope is a passive stance, but that's clearly not how Lovins sees it. (You can find the whole speech online if you are so inclined. A friend sent it to me a few days ago and there's much in it that moves me.) Lovins writes:

The most solid foundation for feeling better about the future is to improve it -- tangibly, durably, reproducibly, and scalably. So now is the time to be practitioners, not theorists; to be synthesists, not specialists; to do solutions, not problems; to do transformation, not incrementalism. Or as my mentor Edwin Land said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” It’s time to shift our language and action, as my wife Judy says, from “Somebody should” to “I will,” to do real work on real projects, and to go to scale. As that early activist St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In a world short of both hope and time, we need to practice Raymond Williams’s truth that “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.”

That last sentence really gets to me. "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing." Despair is often convincing, and almost everyone has reasons for despair at least some of the time. Maybe your despair is personal: your own grief or illness, or a loved one who is sick or suffering, or an injustice in your personal sphere that brings you to tears. Maybe your despair is on a bigger scale: Brexit, the American Presidential election, the realities of hatred and xenophobia. I do not deny anyone's reasons for despair. To paraphrase Hamilton's George Washington, "despair is easy, young man: hoping is harder."

I wrote a d'var Torah last month called Be strong and open your heart that explored the question of hope from a spiritual perspective. I wrote, "hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward -- and, importantly, to act toward -- a world that is better than the one we know now." Hope for a better world may seem especially inaccessible to some of us right now. But our spiritual tradition calls us to cultivate hope, and to be galvanized thereby to act toward making that hope a reality. That's the work at hand. That's always the work at hand. 

Returning again to Lovins' commencement address:

So with the world so finely balanced between fear and hope, with the outcome in suspense and a whiff of imminent shift in the air, let us choose to add the small stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of applied hope. As Zen master Gôtô-roshi put it, “Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.”

This mission is challenging. It requires you to combine sizzle in your brain, fire in your belly, perseverance rooted like a redwood, and soul as light as a butterfly. According to the Internet, one Michael C. Muhammad said: “Everything works out right in the end. If things are not working right, it isn’t the end yet. Don’t let it bother you -- relax and keep on going.”

I'm not sure I agree with the "don't let it bother you" part. Our world is badly broken, and that absolutely should bother us. But we shouldn't allow it to paralyze us. And what I take from his Michael C. Muhammad quote is the assurance that if the world is not redeemed, then our work is not yet done. If there is still injustice in the world, then our work is not yet done. If there is still bigotry in the world, then our work is not yet done. If xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, rape culture, and hatred of the Other still plague us, then our work is not yet done. Friends, I have news for you: our work is not yet done. 

Lovins -- like the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (who I quoted in that d'var Torah I mentioned earlier) asks us to imagine the world as it does not yet exist -- to look beyond what is to what could be. Lovins writes, "Imagine a world where reason, diversity, tolerance, and democracy are once more ascendant; where economic and religious fundamentalism are obsolete; where tyranny is odious, rare, failing, and dwindling; and where global consciousness has transcended fear to live and strive in hope."  I want to imagine a world where the vulnerable are protected, where no one is at risk of sexual assault, where religious freedom is guaranteed and celebrated, where diversities of all kinds are valued. 

Each of us will have her own list of the things that feel most important about the vision of a world redeemed. What matters is that we have the vision -- that we cultivate the vision. This will take work on our parts. We have to dream of the world we need, even when doing so feels vulnerable or scary. We have to imagine the world as we most want it to be, as our hearts ache for it to be. Dream big, and fix those dreams in the forefront of your vision. And then figure out how to take one small step in the direction of those dreams, and another, and another. That's the only way we'll get there. And that's the work we're here in this life to do: to love and to dream, to hope and to build. 

 


New in The Wisdom Daily: the spiritual power of embracing uncertainty

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I have a new piece in The Wisdom Daily. Here's a taste:

I’m happiest when I have made a choice and can act on it. The in-between phase, when I’m poised on the fulcrum of a decision and could fall either way, is frequently unsettling and uncomfortable for me. And that’s part of why living with not-knowing is such an important part of my spiritual practice — both because it doesn’t come naturally to me, and because I think it’s an essential part of being open to holiness unfolding in the world.

I like certainty. I like feeling rooted. I like knowing where I’m going and what happens next. And I know that in all of those things, there’s danger — because it’s easy for certainty to become my idol, the thing I serve. And if I’m serving my need for certainty, my need to have the answers and to know what comes next, then I’m not the person I want to be.

Read the whole thing: The Spiritual Power of Embracing Uncertainty.


Purim: a holiday of hiding and revealing

Because this year is a leap year on the Jewish calendar, we've had an extra month between Tu BiShvat and Purim... but Purim will be here soon, not long after the vernal equinox which marks the official first day of spring.

I used to think Purim was just a kids' holiday, an opportunity to dress up and make noise in shul. But even though I have a kindergartener who loves the schtick and silliness of Purim, I've come to savor Purim for the gifts it offers me as an adult. Each year, Purim teaches me again how to find divine presence in places and times which I might otherwise have mistakenly imagined to be devoid of God.

Here's a bit of wordplay which reflects some of what I'm talking about. Purim features a megillah (scroll) in which God is never explicitly megaleh (revealed). God's explicit presence is nistar (hidden) in this book -- as Esther (can you hear the connection between "Esther" and "nistar"?) hides her Jewishness when she enters the royal palace.

But Esther reveals her Jewishness when her people need her, and God's presence is woven throughout the story in the twists and turns of providence. Purim is a holiday of hiding and revealing. At Purim, God hides in plain sight.

I love the idea that God can hide in plain sight. Because if God can be hidden, than any place where (or time when) I feel as though God's presence is missing, it's possible I might be wrong about that. Our tradition contains this wisdom in a variety of places: not only implicitly in the Purim story, but explicitly in the Tikkunei Zohar, which teaches that there is no place devoid of the divine presence.

Here's what that means to me. No matter where we are, no matter what we're doing, God is with us. No matter what we are feeling -- even if what we are feeling is frustration, or loneliness, or grief -- God is with us. Even at times when life feels hopeless and we feel existentially alone, God is with us. Even when God's presence is neither visible nor palpable, God is with us.

I don't know what the word "God" means to you. I know that for some of us, that word is freighted, or opaque, or alienating. Fortunately our tradition offers us plenty of other words to try on. One of my favorites right now is the Hebrew word Havayah. It's a reshuffling of the letters yud-heh-vav-heh, the four-letter Name of God which is found in Torah and which is often understood as a permutation of the verb "to be." But Havayah can also be understood to mean "The Accompanier," or "The One Who Accompanies."

When I use the name Havayah, I'm reminding myself that I never need to feel alone. I'm reminding myself, as the Purim story reminds me, that even when God seems hidden, that doesn't mean there is no source of holiness in the world. Maybe what I'm experiencing is just a divine game of hide-and-seek. Maybe God hides in order that we might do the work of seeking. Maybe the seeking itself is what I really need to find... and I'm never truly doing it alone, because the One Who Accompanies is always with me.

These are intense theological musings to have been sparked by a scroll which is, on the surface, a bawdy soap opera about a long-ago Persian court! For me, that's precisely the point. Purim teaches me to seek (and find) depth, or meaning, or God, even in the unlikeliest of places. May you find wondrous things in unlikely places, this spring and always.

 

This originally appeared in the Berkshire Jewish Voice, in their Feb. 14 to April 2 issue.

 


White light, rainbows, and the soul: a teaching on parashat Noach

19360722113_02a6f45582_zWhen our ancient ancestors saw rainbows, what must they have imagined? Today's Torah reading suggests that they saw rainbows as God's mnemonic device, a reminder of the promise that God would never again try to destroy all life.

Today most of us would probably say that rainbows exist because of scientific principles. Raindrops refract sunlight, dividing it into its constituent wavelengths. White light becomes red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

Rainbows take something ordinary -- plain white light -- and reveal the extraordinary hiding within it. All of those colors in the spectrum are always already part of every sunbeam, but we don't see them until the raindrops refract the light.

And that scientific explanation takes me right back to theology. The kabbalists, our mystics, use this as a metaphor for God. God is singular, God is One -- like white light. But for those who have eyes to see, God's qualities fan out like the colors of the rainbow.

Hidden within the oneness of white light are the seven colors of the rainbow. And hidden within the Oneness of God are lovingkindness, strength and boundaries, harmony, endurance, humble splendor, generativity, and Shekhinah -- what our mystics called the seven most accessible qualities of God.

This year, the image of the rainbow teaches me about balance. When white light meets raindrops we see the spectrum of colors in perfect balance across the sky. No one color drowns out the others: they're all there. All of these qualities are part of God, and in God too they need to be in balance.

Too much gevurah (judgement) might lead to a harsh decree. Too much chesed (overflowing lovingkindness) might lead to emotional floodwaters. But when all of God's qualities are in right balance -- when all of the colors of the rainbow are present -- then the earth can know peace.

The rainbow reminds me of the need to accept and integrate disparate parts of ourselves: our lovingkindness and our ability to draw boundaries, our balance, our ability to endure. We who are made in God's image also contain all of these colors of self and soul, and we need all of them.

Sometimes we see our spectrum of inner qualities most clearly through the prism of tears. Whether we weep in sorrow or in gladness, times of deep emotion offer opportunities to see ourselves more clearly. When tempestuous internal weather meets the light of one's neshama, the light of one's soul, that light can be refracted through tears -- just as literal sunlight is refracted through rain.

What kind of rainbow is revealed in us when the light of the neshama is refracted through tears? What does it feel like to become aware of those internal colors, to accept our own range of emotion and spirit so that the rainbow of our whole selves can stretch resplendent across our inner skies?

 

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Noach. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


On meteors, the night sky, and seeing ourselves in a new light - thoughts for Elul

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A few nights ago a friend reminded us that the Perseid meteors were going to be visible. So around 9pm we turned off all of our lights and went outside and lay on our backs on the deck and stared up at the sky. I knew it would take a while for my eyes to adjust.

From the moment I looked up at the heavens I was awestruck by the sheer number of stars. And I thought to myself: even if I don't see any meteors, dayenu, it's enough, because this is so beautiful. And then I saw one streak across the sky, and it was amazing.

I know that we are blessed to live in a place that doesn't have a lot of "light pollution" -- where we can turn off our lights and really see the night sky. And I know that the reason the stars were so visible is that there was almost no moon.

Because this weekend is Rosh Chodesh -- new moon. Now the moon starts growing again. This is one of the things I love about being attuned to the Jewish calendar: it means I'm also always attuned to the phases of the moon as she waxes and wanes.

The moon will grow for two weeks, and shrink for two weeks, and the next new moon is Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, also known as Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah is four weeks from this Sunday. Maybe for some of you that doesn't sound like a big deal. So what? You're not writing sermons or preparing services, so does it really make a difference to you? I want to say today that it can make a difference -- and I hope that it will.

Our tradition teaches that this is a month during which we should deepen our spiritual practices, whatever they may be. This is a month for spiritual preparation, a month during which we look back on the year now ending. Who have you been, since last Rosh Hashanah?

What are you proud of, and what do you feel ashamed of? When were you the best self you know how to be, and when did you fall short? How's your relationship with God these days -- whatever that word or idea means to you?

If we spend these next four weeks in introspection, discerning where we may have mis-stepped and where we forged a wise path, then when we get to Rosh Hashanah we'll experience those two days of prayer and song and story in a different way.

If we spend these next four weeks rekindling our spiritual practices -- be they yoga, or meditation, or prayer, or walking in the woods -- then when we metaphorically call up God on Rosh Hashanah we won't need to be afraid of hearing, "it's been a whole year -- nu, you don't write, you don't call...!"

One Hasidic teaching holds that Elul is the time when "the King is in the fields" -- when God leaves the divine palace on high and enters creation to walk with us in the meadows and listen to the deepest yearnings of our hearts. God is extra-available to us this month. What do we most need to say?

BlogElul+5776Another Hasidic teaching points out that the name of this month, Elul, can be read as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי / Ani l'dodi v'dodi li -- "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine." The Beloved, in this context, is God. We belong to God, and God belongs to us, and what connects us is love.

The stars are there every night, but we can only see them when there are no clouds and when the moon has dwindled. The opportunity to do the work of teshuvah, repentance / return, is there all year long -- but some seasons of the year offer us special opportunities to see ourselves in a new light.

This is a time of month when the night sky is filled with tiny lights. And this is a time of year when we can open our hearts and souls to the light of God's presence as we do the work of discernment and transformation. Imagine what we might see in ourselves if we take the time to let our eyes adjust.

Here's to a meaningful Elul.

This is the d'var Torah (really more of a word about the season) which I offered at my shul yesterday. It's also my offering for the first day of #blogElul. I'm not committing to posting something daily for #blogElul this year, but here's an offering for day 1.


Beautiful

LogoHas anyone told you today that you are beautiful?

Not because of what you're wearing. Not because they like your jewelry or your tie, though maybe they do. But your clothes aren't the point. Not now.

Not because they want something from you and are trying to butter you up. Not because you did something for them and they're trying to thank you. Just because it's true.

No?

I'll tell you, then. You are beautiful.

There is beauty in your eyes. When you let your neshama, your soul, shine through -- it takes my breath away. There's beauty in your hands -- in everything they do, have done, will do in the world.

There is such beauty in what makes you you. I know that the world we live in doesn't always feel like a safe place to let your light shine. I know that you don't always feel beautiful. But believe me: you are.

I wish I could make your life endlessly sweet. I wish I could smooth the rough edges, gentle away the sorrow, remove suffering from your path. I can't, because those things aren't given to me to do.

But I can tell you that you are beautiful, and that you are precious, and that I cannot fathom that a loving God put you on this earth to suffer, and that I want every good thing for you. Every single one.

I can tell you these things because I have been blessed to hear them myself. And I know that if they are true for me, then they are true not only for me. And if I needed to hear them, maybe you do, too.

I know that we are all reflections of God's beauty. I don't always see that beauty in myself, but when I look at the people I love most in the world, their beauty is more than I can describe in words.

I look at the people I love, and I want their lives to be paved with kindness, with gentle encounters and generous conversations, with an endless outpouring of love, because they deserve every good thing.

I believe that God sees each of us that way. The heart-overflowing limitless endless love that I feel for the people I love most in the world -- God feels that way toward every one of us. Can you imagine?

Think of the person you love most. How beautiful they are to you, because you see them through the eyes of love. Now imagine yourself, seen through the eyes of someone who loves you that intensely.

Because some One does. Even if you feel completely alone in the world. Even if life right now is hard. You are beautiful in those eyes. And you are beautiful in mine. You are beautiful because you are you.

 

The image illustrating this post comes from the folks at you-are-beautiful.com. It's one of the two bumper stickers on my car.

 


i carry it in my heart

B9646da06dccdd354b36623ee8b98897You've probably heard the aphorism that being a parent is like having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest. Being a parent means being vulnerable to everything that can go wrong in the world. It means (or should mean) being intimately attuned to someone else's physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing; feeling their sorrows and their joys.

This is not only true of being a parent. It is the complicated blessing of being a person who loves any other person deeply. When someone is beloved to me, and I to them, our hearts become permeable. I open myself to feeling some of what my beloveds feel. I yearn for my beloveds to be blessed with joy, and I accept that when they feel grief my own heart will ache along with theirs.

In this place and time the language of love and beloved is presumed to be romantic, having to do with two people "falling in love." But I think that if that's all the word "beloved" means to us, then we're shrinking the capacity of our language. A sibling can be beloved. A friend can be beloved. We don't just "fall" in love; if we're blessed to have relationships which deepen over time, we grow in love.

Every intimate relationship comes with the price tag of having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest, vulnerable to harm. If I give a piece of my heart to everyone who is beloved to me, then my heart is always expanding. A little piece of me travels with each of my beloveds wherever they go. An invisible thread connects my heart to theirs, always. They are never alone. Neither am I.

This is an incalculable gift. It is beyond words, and I don't say that lightly -- God knows I have plenty of words for most occasions! But emotional and spiritual intimacy beggars my language. We don't have good words for it, and the words we do have are too-easily written-off as overblown or corny. To love and to be loved -- to be beloved...! The connection is more than I know how to describe.

And sometimes the heartache is, too. I don't mean the heartache you hear about in pop songs, one lover leaving another behind. I mean the heartache of precisely the opposite: of being connected, heart to heart, feeling a loved one's happiness with them -- and also their sorrow or their grief. Have you ever felt so much love for someone that your heart threatens to burst out of your chest?

I've been thinking lately about what it means to seek to live with an open heart -- even when that also means that my heart is vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not only my own but also the fortunes of those whom I love. How can I live that truth with integrity? How can I express my love in a way which will help to sustain my beloveds, and how can I receive their caring in return?

I'm using the term "beloved" to mean someone dear to my heart. But Beloved, with a capital B, is one of our tradition's ways of imagining God. God is the ultimate Beloved, and to God, we are all beloved. God has compassion for us, which is to say, God feels with us, because we are beloved of God. When we feel sorrow, God's heart breaks along with ours... and when we feel joy, we illuminate the heavens.

Our liturgy teaches that we are loved by an unending love -- a love transcending all space and time. A forever love. An infinite love. Sometimes I catch glimmers of how the love I feel for my beloveds is an infinitesimal fragment of that ahavat olam. Sometimes my love threatens to overflow my chest, and I think: I'm just one. If we could put together the love of all humanity, we could move mountains.

To borrow a term from Thich Nhat Hanh, when we love each other we inter-are. I become a part of you, and you become a part of me. This is one of the places where I experience God: in the connection between your heart and mine. God is in the space between us which is charged with concern and with caring and with love. And that's true whether we are physically side by side, or a thousand miles apart.

"When you love one another, then God is within you," as the Shaker hymn has it. Maybe that's why my heart feels too expansive for my chest. What human ribcage could contain that luminous Presence which is made manifest within us when we open our hearts in loving connection? As e. e. cummings wrotei carry your heart(i carry it in my heart) -- and in the link between our hearts, there is God.


God, too, is lonely: a d'var Torah for Behar-Bechukotai

Lonely-loneliness-21529870-329-328Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

This week's Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, teaches that every seventh year we must give the land a rest. Every seventh day we get Shabbat, a time to rest and be renewed; every seventh year the earth deserves the same thing.

This is called the shmita year -- in English, "Sabbatical." And this year right now -- 5775 -- is a shmita year, which means that all over the world people have been talking and thinking and praying about how we can best care for our earth.

This week's portion also teaches us about the yovel, or Jubilee. After seven sevens of years, we reach the 50th year, a Jubilee year, during which all debts are canceled and all property is returned to its original owner. Or, I should say, its original Owner-with-a-capital-O, because one of the themes of this Torah portion is that the earth belongs to God and we are merely resident on it. As God says in this week's portion, גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי –– "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me."

This is a familiar category. Torah frequently speaks in terms of Israelites, outsiders, and the גר תושב (ger toshav), or resident alien -- someone who is not originally of our community but is resident with us and among us. It's a lovely inversion of the norm to say that even we "insiders" in the community are ultimately resident strangers, because when it comes to the planet, the planet belongs to God and we're merely borrowing space on it for the short spans of our lives.

Earlier this week I studied a beautiful Hasidic teaching about the verse "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me." Usually we understand it to mean what I just said -- that we are גרים ותושבים, resident strangers, on the earth which belongs to God. But the Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim offers a poignant alternative reading.

He cites a verse from psalms: "I am a stranger in the land; do not hide Your mitzvot from me." (Psalm 119:19) Someone who is a stranger, he points out, has no one close to them with whom they can connect and tell the happenings of their day. A גר תושב / ger toshav is inevitably lonely. When such a person does find a friend, he writes, then they can joyously pour out everything which has been in their heart.

Here's where he makes a radical move. He says that the Holy One of Blessing is a lonely stranger in this world, because there is no one with whom God can connect wholly.

Let me say that again. God is a גר תושב / ger toshav.

God is a resident alien, a lonely stranger, existentially alone. This insight really moved me. I know that we all have times of feeling alone, and the insight that God too feels this way -- that our loneliness is a reflection of the Divine loneliness -- changes how I relate to those feelings of loneliness.

The Degel finds a hint of this in the psalm he cited. "I am a stranger in the land," said the psalmist -- as if to say, 'God, like You I am a stranger in this world, so don't hide Your connective-commandments from me!' The psalmist is saying: God, like You I am essentially alone. I yearn for Your mitzvot, Your connective-commandments, to alleviate my loneliness. And God yearns for us in return.

God is the lonely stranger, all alone in the world. We are the friend God finds, and when God finds us, God can pour out all of what is on God's heart -- in the form of Torah and mitzvot, our stories and our opportunities for connection with God.

"Y'all are resident-strangers with Me" can mean: y'all are strangers just as I, God, am a stranger. Y'all feel loneliness just as I, God, feel loneliness. And because we are together with God in this condition of loneliness and yearning for connection, we are never truly alone.

 

My thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman who studied this text from the Degel with me.

 


This week's portion: cut away the calluses on your heart

DSCN5657WAt this weekend's Remembering Reb Zalman Shabbaton in Colorado a variety of my friends and colleagues will be collaborating on leading Shabbat davenen. I am humbled and honored to have the chance to leyn Torah on Shabbat morning. I was given the opportunity to choose the handful of verses from parashat Ekev which I wanted to leyn, and I chose Deuteronomy 10:12-19, which translate as follows:

And now, Israel: what does Adonai your God ask of you?
That with awe of the One, you walk in God's ways, and love God;
that you serve Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul.
Keep God's connective-commandments and engraved-commandments
which I am giving to you today for your good / to improve your lives.
Behold: the heights of the heavens belong to God; the earth, and all that is upon it.
It was to your ancestors that God was drawn, out of love,
so that you, their descendants, continue to be chosen among all peoples even now.
Cut away, therefore, the calluses on your hearts; stiffen your necks no more.
For Adonai your God is the utmost and the highest (God of God, Lord of Lords.)
God: great, mighty, and awesome, Who doesn't play favorites and takes no bribe,
Who upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow
And loves the stranger, providing food and clothing.
Just so, you should love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

I initially chose these verse because I was drawn both to the beginning and to the end of this passage. I liked the exhortation to walk in God's ways and to relate to God both with awe and with love. I liked the exhortation to love the stranger, the Other, for we too have known Otherness and alienation. I imagined that I would offer a blessing, for those who come up for this aliyah, relating to these images. And I still resonate deeply with these verses.

But as I've been rehearsing these lines this week, what's really leapt out at me has been verse 16: "Cut away, therefore, the calluses on your heart, and stiffen your necks no more." Maybe it's standing out for me because of the way the Torah trope (the dots and dashes and symbols which indicate chanting melody) place emphasis on the instruction to cut away -- the melody rises like a waterfall flowing upward before gliding back down again.

And maybe it's resonating for me because I feel lately as though this is precisely what has been happening in me -- the calluses over my heart have been cut away, and my heart is open to the joy and the pain of the world. Every parent rejoicing, and every parent grieving. Every child who laughs, and every child who weeps. Everything that is good and beautiful and right in our world, and everything that is unjust and broken.

The great sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (in his essay "On Prayer") that prayer should be subversive, should shatter the pyramids of domination and cut away the calluses on our hearts. Lately I've been aiming to open up the prayerful opportunities in every moment regardless of whether I'm engaged in liturgical prayer. Even when I'm not reciting formal words of prayer, life offers opportunities to bare my callused heart.

We can choose to make a practice of opening our hearts, of removing the protective scar tissue of anger and mistrust and the need to be right -- or we may find that life does that work for us, stripping away our walls and our calluses through illness, depression, tragedy, or loss. I think it is easier, perhaps gentler, if we do the work ourselves. If we ourselves cut away the calluses we have formed through indifference and callousness.

It is not easy to walk through the world with our calluses removed, with our hearts open to the exultation and the grief. But this is what this passage asks of us. This is what spiritual practice asks of us. When we cut away our defenses, and truly see the anguish of the widow and the orphan, the mother sobbing for her child, the injustices of war, the horrors wrought by illness, we can't help but fulfill the commandment most oft-repeated in Torah, to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

This week as we prepare to remember our teacher, rebbe, colleague, and friend Rabbi Zalman Meshullam Hiyya Schachter-Shalomi, these verses remind us to keep our hearts open to our mourning and our loss. To keep our hearts open to the sorrows in the news. To actively seek to remove the calluses which would protect us from awareness of suffering. To face that which we don't want to face: in the world, and in ourselves.

This is what Torah asks us to do. Maybe because when we do this, we naturally unlock our store of compassion, which leads us to work to repair what is broken in our world. Maybe because this is part and parcel of relating to God in love and in awe, of walking in God's ways. And maybe because this is a deep spiritual practice through which we do the inner work of transformation, the refining of the soul, for which we are born into this world.

 

Image source: Circumcision of the Heart by Gwen Meharg.


The road and the walking

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path
that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road--
only waves upon the sea.

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda
que nunca se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.

Antonio Machado, Campos de Castilla (1912), translated by Betty Jean Craige

I encountered this poem in a daily "Making the Omer Count" email from the Jewish Mindfulness Network (sign up here) and it struck a chord. "Wanderer, there is no road / the road is made by walking." I hear the poet saying that although we may imagine that there is a single correct path on which we're "supposed" to walk, that's a fallacy -- a comfortable and perhaps comforting notion, but not ultimately true. There is no single right way to live a life. Do you find comfort in the idea that you're "doing it right" -- or do you castigate yourself with the idea that you're "doing it wrong"? The self-praise and self-blame are equally incorrect. There is no single path. Wherever you are, is wherever you are. You can't be in the wrong place, because by definition, whatever path you're walking is your path.

We may imagine that we know where we're going. We may pretend that we're in control of the journey and we can anticipate both the destination and the turns the road will take along the way -- but that too is a falsehood. No matter what I do or don't do, there are things I can't control. Sickness and health; other people's choices; what hand of cards I will be dealt in any given moment -- all beyond my ken. The only thing I might be able to control is how I respond to what arises in me and around me... and even there, my ability to maintain control isn't absolute. What would it feel like to yield, to let the road unfold as it will and to seek the blessings in wherever the road takes us? What would it feel like to trust that my footsteps are the road, that I am always already where I am meant to be?

"The road is made by walking." This line shifts me from thinking in terms of an individual life, to thinking in terms of community. I think of halakha, the Hebrew word usually translated as "law." Halakha is the ongoing conversation between our texts, our sages, and today's interpreters. Halakha is the process which seeks to connect our actions with the revelation at Sinai and our communal connection with God. And the word halakha comes from the root which connotes walking. In its deepest sense, halakha is not a set of strictures and instructions -- it's a way of walking. My teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel has taught that halakha doesn't speak; halakhists do. Which is to say: there is no single authoritative voice of the halakha. Instead we have the many and varied voices of those who strive to interpret what has come before us. We make the road by walking.

"By walking one makes the road[.]" Each of us walks her own path. Only in looking back may we achieve full clarity on where we've been and how we got to where we are -- and that hindsight comes with the price of not being able to walk any stretch of the road twice. I think of all of the milestones I've passed along the way, and I know that the road of my life will never return to those places. Not only that, but the minute during which I began to write this post...? Gone, and unrecoverable. The minute during which you began to read...? The same. The only path we can see clearly is the one we've already walked, and because we've already walked it, it's fixed. The road ahead is limitless potential, an infinity of choices and changes. Only the road behind can be known. Every step I take builds the road of my life beneath my feet.

And after all this, Machado takes the poem's ultimate turn: in truth there is no road, only waves on the sea. Life is flux and change, the ratzo v'shov ("running and returning") of Ezekiel's angels and of our own spiritual lives, the waves going out and the waves coming in. That, in turn, reminds me of one of my favorite parables which I first heard at Elat Chayyim from Rabbi Jeff Roth -- the two waves in the middle of the ocean, one big and one small, and the big wave was weeping with fear. "Why are you crying?" asked the little wave. "If you could see what I see," said the big wave, "you'd cry too -- we're headed for a rocky shore, and when we reach the rocks, we'll be shattered into nothingness!" But the little wave had access to a deeper wisdom, and said to the big wave, "we're not waves -- we're water."

We're not waves, we're water. We are more than individual souls who shatter on the rocky shoals of death. That within us which is eternal remains eternal, even when the form we've taken during this life comes to its end. An individual wave disperses into foam, but the motion of the sea is forever. And so are we. My path, your path, the footsteps of everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live -- waves which come and go, run and return. Life, being, the very cosmos -- expanding and contracting, inhaling and exhaling, beginning and ending, beginning again.


Be kind

5b628aa5790b9c0a1cb9a1bb68101832A while back, one of my friends posted something on Facebook which resonated with me -- a quote which suggested that we never know when someone is facing something difficult or painful, or carrying some hidden grief, and so the most important thing is to be kind.

When I did a google search, trying to find the quotation in question, I found "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," sometimes attributed to Plato, sometimes Philo, and other times to John Watson -- not the Arthur Conan Doyle character, but the reverend. (For more on this: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle - quoteinvestigator.com.)

I've seen a variation on this idea raised in response to various online imbroglios. If someone doesn't reply to your comment right away, don't assume that they're ignoring you; if someone posts something distressing, try to give them the benefit of the doubt; you never know what's going on in their life behind the privacy of the computer screen.

But even in person, I think it holds true. We never really know all of what's arising in someone's head and heart, or what anxiety or sadness they may be carrying. A fear, a difficult diagnosis, distance from a loved one, regret... we hold a lot of things in our hearts, and many of them are not easy to sit with.

In such a situation as this -- and this is the situation in which we all live, whether or not it's particularly acute at any given moment -- what could be more important than being kind?

One of the commentors on that quoteinvestigator post noted that this is very like a teaching from Mahayana Buddhism. To wit: suffering is pervasive; we compound our suffering by forgetting that we are interconnected; the way out is to recognize our interconnectedness and to treat everyone with kindness.

In my religious tradition we say that chesed, lovingkindness, is one of the fundamental characteristics of God -- and as we are made in the divine image and likeness, lovingkindness is an essential human quality, too. "On three things the world rests," says one of our aphorisms: "on Torah, and on avodah (service / prayer), and on gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness)." Without acts of lovingkindness, the world would not endure.

It's not always easy to respond to the world from a place of chesed. I am reminded of this daily in a hundred tiny ways. Our child dawdles getting dressed and I risk being late to meet someone. Someone sends an email which agitates me and makes me angry. I hear something on the news which raises my ire. I don't always manage to respond in the way I might wish.

But it's a goal worth aiming for. Because we all suffer, and we all carry wounds both old and recent, and we all yearn to be met with kindness.


Interview at A Little Yes

I'm not sure when I started reading Heather Caliri of A Little Yes, though I think it was around the time that she moved with her kids to Argentina for six months. I've enjoyed vicariously sharing her adventures and looking through her window on the world -- and I'm frequently moved by her (Christian) perspectives on the intersections of faith and parenthood. 

So I was delighted when she asked to interview me. Here's a glimpse of our conversation:

You’re a poet, and often write liturgical poems; what parallels do you see between the practice of faith and the writing of poetry?

I would say that both require me to get out of my own way. They both require a trust that if I pour out my heart, something good will come. And in both, it’s okay if things aren’t perfect on the first try.

One of the reasons I love that morning prayer I use is the verse, “Great is your faithfulness.” That somehow implies that God has faith in us. Which is wild—we would only think the opposite.

But thinking that God has faith in me as a person, a mother, a poet, there is something greater than me that has faith in my endeavors...

You can read the whole thing here: On the road to ordination: wildflowers, grief, and the joyous faithfulness of God. (By the by, these interviews are a long-running series on her blog; you can see some of her favorites linked from her Best Of page.)

Thank you, Heather, for a thoughtful and sweet conversation and for this lovely interview post.


Rick Black's Star of David

Star-of-David-by-Rick-Black-200x300I had the good fortune to be asked to contribute a "blurb" for Rick Black's beautiful new poetry chapbook Star of David, winner of the 2012 Poetica Magazine Contemporary Jewish Writing Chapbook Contest, published by Poetica Magazine and distributed by Turtle Light Press, 2013. My paper copy of the book just arrived in my mailbox, and I am so glad to have it.

When asked for a blurb, I replied:

This slim volume wrestles with the angels of our history and brings forth a new name. It's located, in its own words, "at the intersection / of grief and solace[.]" Black understands that his grandfather's prayer book is a box of portkeys to farflung destinations of history and spirit; that when his daughter pushes the empty swings, she is rocking the dead to gentle sleep. Who among us could fail to identify with the poet who wants to sing of horseradish, of toy frogs, of dancing with his daughter until they fall down -- but not of slavery or of the Egyptians drowning in the sea? Black practices observance -- not walking to shul on Saturdays, but noticing the countless wonders of this real and complicated world. We are blessed to be able to see our world through his eyes.

(Only part of that quote appears on the book's webpage, but I wanted to share it here in full, because it's still a fine reflection of how I see the collection.)

I have several favorite poems in the collection, which tells you something about its quality. Two of my favorites are on facing pages: "Hands" and "Observance." In "Hands," we hear the voice of someone who watches people walking by with strollers and tallit bags, clearly on their way to shul, but who prefers to remain in the garden nurturing what he has sowed, "Hunched over / in torn jeans and invisible phylacteries[.]" And "Observance" is so lovely that I'll reproduce it here in full:

Observance

I am not observant
I do not walk to shul or refrain
from cooking on Shabbat.

But I do practice
observance
as often as possible:

watching geese
descend on their wings
into the river,

listening to a red-bellied
woodpecker lunatic
in my backyard

and inhaling the fragrance
of wild lilac
along a forest path.

I've shared Rick's work here before -- I reprinted his poem "Bougainvillea" in the 2002 post Two poems from Before There Is Nowhere to Stand. I admire his willingness to confront that which is unbelievably painful, as he does in "Bougainvillea" -- or, for that matter, as in the first poem of this chapbook, which describes in exquisite language an encounter with a yellow fabric star reading Jude. He wrestles with suffering and emerges with prayer, as in the chapbook's final poem, "Kaddish:" "Even when I am not reciting kaddish, / even when I protest against it, / I am still reciting kaddish."

Star of David costs $15 and can be purchased at the distributor's website. I recommend it.


Sitting with what we can't know: on "who will live and who will die"

UnetanehThis morning I was asked a question about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we pray on Rosh Hashanah. How do we make sense of "on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed" when something truly awful happens? For instance: a teenager is killed, God forbid, in a horrific accident. How can we reconcile our horror at this kind of trauma with a sense of a loving God? What does it mean to assert that God "seals" such a fate for us? Let me say upfront that I don't have "the" answer. But here is an answer.

Earlier in that same prayer, we read "You open the Book of Memory. It reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it." That line says to me that we're not talking about God as some kind of cosmic accountant, taking note of each action and selecting a corresponding fate. (This isn't Santa Claus, who "knows when we've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake!") The Book of Memory is something we each write for ourselves.

Every action I take inscribes itself in the Book of Memory. I inscribe and seal my signature in that book with every thing I do, and every thing I don't do; every kind word I speak, and every unkind thought I harbor. God doesn't write the Book of Memory for us: we write it ourselves, and at this season of the year, it "reads from itself" -- or, to use a more modern metaphor, at this season of the year, we sit down and watch the television show of our own lives.

Later in that same prayer, we read "But teshuvah (repentance or re/turn, turning toward God), tefilah (prayer / self-examination), and tzedakah (righteous giving) avert the harshness of the decree." The prayer doesn't make the claim that these three things can change what's going to happen; but they can ameliorate it. They can sweeten it. They can soften it. If, God forbid, someone I love is going to get sick and die this year -- no amount of teshuvah, tefilah, or tzedakah on my part or on theirs will change that reality. Our cells do what they do; our bodies do what they do; and sometimes we cannot be medically made well again. Or if, God forbid, a teenager on her bicycle is struck by a car -- no amount of repentance, prayer, or righteous giving can change that shattered reality for her or for her family who remain to mourn. But teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah can change how we experience the reality which is. They can change our experience of the world. 

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